In E. Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News, Quoyle, the main character, travels to an abandoned family home at what feels like the end of the earth — an isolated point in Newfoundland, an island province off the North Atlantic coast of Canada. Lasse Hallström's film version, which stars Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, preserved the book's authenticity of place by going to the location so vividly described by Proulx.
“It is probably the most remote location I've ever worked in on a feature film,” says director of photography Oliver Stapleton. “There weren't things like shops; if people wanted to buy a CD, or on Sunday got a craving for a little bit of normal life, they had to drive about two hours south to find the nearest mall-type place.” It was also a dicey proposition for filming, since equipment came from PS Production Services in Toronto, and the nearest airport to the location, in St. John's, was a three-hour drive away.
But before venturing to this inhospitable spot in May 2001, the production filmed interiors, including many scenes set inside the decrepit, non-electrified house, on stages in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Usually, it's better film practice to shoot exteriors first, because then you know the light and you know the conditions,” says the DP. But in this case, Newfoundland was blanketed in snow when filming on the mostly summer-set story started. Actors' schedules also had to be worked around; costar Judi Dench, for example, sandwiched shooting on Iris between her Shipping News sequences. “The schedule was predicated on the weather and the actors' availability, and not at all on the drama,” Stapleton says.
That meant the cinematographer did a lot of estimation onstage. “I would say, ‘What kind of weather would I like this interior to be, thematically?’ If I thought it should look cold, miserable, and rainy, I'd light it like that. Quite remarkably, when we got up to Newfoundland and started doing the exteriors, pretty much everything fit. It was partly planning and partly luck. We always gave ourselves some options with the exteriors.”
To better convey the extremity of the place, Stapleton did campaign to get snow into the movie's initial scenes. “I devised a scheme to employ a second unit to go to Newfoundland while it was snowing and shoot plates, as well as helicopter shots of a car with doubles driving. We came up with a combination of blue screen, second unit, and first unit with snow blankets and real snow put down while we were there.” Thus, Quoyle arrives at the shuttered house in the snow, and “when they go inside, you cut to the stage. I surrounded the set with a very, very bright white cyc, and pounded lots of very bright tungsten — 20ks, 10ks, 5ks — through narrow slats in the shutters.”
Since the Quoyle homestead has no electric light, night scenes are illuminated by candles and lanterns, “but not the romantic version,” says Stapleton. The sources were used sparsely, not as a generic soft light. “I was placing them very carefully within the frame, and surrounding them with very small units to pick up the actors' faces. I find, on the whole, that one candle or one lantern equals three or four lights — small lights on dimmers, carefully placed. I also did the moonlight-out-the-window thing, which seemed perfectly legitimate in this exposed place.”
Stapleton lit and shot the film to conform to a “modified” bleach bypass process done to the prints at Deluxe. “Lasse and David Gropman, the production designer, and I landed on the notion that the film should have a desaturated color, but a strong contrast,” he says. “We wanted something that looked strong and quite bleak, in the sense of being pure. It's a place without compromises, where people live simple but tough lives. The tricky bit is when the sun comes out[ — I wanted even the sunny stuff to look cold, like it's still minus 10°.” The movie was shot in Super 35 format, with Kodak 500T and 320T stocks. “The principle I was working to was a low-contrast negative with a lot of tonal latitude, and a hard print with a lot of detail.”
The DP says the fact that The Shipping News actually was shot where it's set is a credit to the producers and to Miramax, which released the movie in December. “A lot of producers would have said, ‘That's a nice idea, but we're going to do this on a little cliff north of San Francisco.’”